Sep. 1—While many songs in music are about the ups and downs of love — either in the 'ain't love grand' or the 'woe is me' modes — there are plenty of other subjects for songwriters, musicians and singers to cover.
Fittingly, for a Labor Day weekend, some of the best have been about work — which shouldn't be all that surprising because it is something to which many of us relate.
Whether punching a time clock, working in the office, around the house or in the yard, or doing the many tasks it takes to keep a home going, work is something that just about everyone has experienced.
Some of those work-related songs are among the most-loved in some artists' repertoires, and among their most-recognized as well.
I've been at work thinking about some of my favorite work-related songs, including those which I've heard the artists deliver live in concert. Not only did I get to hear them in-concert, a couple were delivered during what were for me among the most memorable concerts I've witnessed.
Two of the songs even had similar titles: "Workin' Man's Blues" and "Workingman's Blues #2."
Merle Haggard's "Workin' Man's Blues" anthem for blue collar workers proved to be one of his biggest hits, in a career filled with many.
It's also continued to be one of the biggest songs about working, covered by other artists and a mainstay in Haggard's concerts during his career.
Backed by his band, The Strangers, Haggard's "Workin' Man's Blues" opens with a bouncy beat that seems to signify the singer's determination to keep working "long as these two hands are fit to use."
He lays out the challenge the song's narrator faces in the opening lines:
"It's a big job getting by with nine kids and a wife, but I've been a working man dang near all my life" Haggard sings. "But i'll keep workin' as long as these two hands are fit to use. I'll drink my beer in a tavern and sing a little bit of these working man's blues."
"Workin' Man Blues" on Haggard's studio version opens with a brief "chicken picking" solo from Louisiana native James Burton.
Burton wasn't a regular member of Haggard's touring band "The Strangers," so in concert both Haggard and his longtime lead guitarist Roy Nichols would deliver their own electric lead guitar solos.
Haggard and Nichols weren't the only ones taking solos during many of Haggard's live performances of the song. When performing it live, he often used the song to showcase members of his band.
I remember catching Haggard once when he performed a Sunday afternoon concert at a club in Poteau, not far from the well-known Black Angus Restaurant.
It was during Haggard's fiddle phase. Not only had he learned the fiddle, he carried a couple of fiddlers in his band as well. They would sometimes all join in unison for a triple fiddle effect, similar to that sometimes utilized by Haggard's musical heroes, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.
During Haggard's Poteau performance of "Workin' Man's Blues," he again used it to let many of his band members take solos during an elongated version of the song.
By that time, I'd gotten used to seeing The Strangers saxophonist and trumpeter Don Markham performing with the band.
During that day's performance of "Workin' Man's Blues," Markham delivered a memorable saxophone solo that lifted the song another notch.
I always thought it kind of funny that Haggard used his song "Workin' Man's Blues" to let his band members have solo workouts when they performed the song in-concert.
With Haggard's song such a big part of his repertoire, I felt surprised when I saw Bob Dylan's 2006 album "Modern Times" included a song called "Workingman's Blues #2."
I knew Dylan would have been familiar with Haggard's "Workin' Man Blues" — not only because Dylan is a connoisseur of fine songwriting, but also because Dylan and Haggard toured together in 2005, the year before Dylan's "Workingman's Blues #2" was released.
When I heard Dylan's recording though, it sounded nothing like Haggard's, with an entirely different chord progression, melody and lyrics. About the only similarity I heard is they both contained the words "working man's blues" — although Dylan wrote it as "workingman's blues" in his version.
A few years later, I got to hear Dylan perform the song live during a 2009 concert in what was then known as The Brady Theater, but is now known simply as the Tulsa Theater.
Dylan had already entered his keyboard-only phase, but for a few songs, he stepped to the front of the stage. This time, he held a microphone and a harmonica in his hand, and as he began singing, his voice floated through the Brady, filled with empathy for everyone with the "workingman's blues."
With every word ringing clear, Dylan sang what I recognized as the opening lines of his "Workingman's Blues #2."
"There's an evening haze settling over the town, starlight by the edge of the creek; The buying power of the proletariat's gone down, money's getting shallow and weak."
He followed that a few lines later with "Where the place I love best is a sweet memory, it's a new path that we trod. They say low wages are a reality, if we want to compete abroad."
Dylan infused his singing over the song's 20 verses with a soulfulness that made the live performance even better than the album track.
The only time he sang the lyrics in the song's title came during the chorus:
"Well, meet me at the bottom, don't lag behind, bring me my hat and shoes. You can hang back or fight your best on the front line, sing a little bit of these working man's blues."
Dylan got the most enthusiastic reaction form the crowd when he neared the song's end after he sang the lines "I can live on rice and beans."
Spontaneous cheers of agreement erupted when Dylan followed that line with "Some people never worked a day in their life, don't know what work even means."
Judging by the hollers and whoops that followed those lines, there most have been lots of working men and women in the Brady Theater that night.